Wait, Great Britain’s Health Chief Thinks Alcohol of Any Amount is Unsafe? Wrong

New dietary guidelines in the U.K. suggest even the smallest consumption raises your cancer risk.
New dietary guidelines in the U.K. suggest even the smallest consumption raises your cancer risk. Bert Hardy / Getty Images

If there was ever a time to celebrate our Yankee independence, this is it. Great Britain's Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, recently announced that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, and that the National Health Service would be lowering its recommendation for how much citizens should (or more aptly, shouldn't) be drinking to about six beers a week — and certainly not all at once.

Meanwhile, in the land of the free, our newly released dietary restrictions say that moderate consumption of alcohol (14 weekly beers) is fine, so long as you take calorie count into consideration. 

Britain's decision is based on research showing increased risks of cancer — especially breast cancer — among those who drink regularly. In the body, alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a probable carcinogen. Even small amounts of alcohol seem to contribute to increased cancer risks, as a meta-review of studies published in 2012 found increased incidences of certain cancers for those only consuming one drink a day.

But don't pour your pale ale down the drain just yet. There are serious methodological limits to the research being done on alcohol and mortality. One reason for this is that drinkers and non-drinkers often lead pretty different lifestyles. If someone abstains from alcohol for religious reasons, they may also abstain from certain foods and raucous late-night carousing. Drinkers meanwhile, may spend more time around smokers — even if they don't smoke. But they also tend to have strong social connections, something that can contribute to overall wellness. 

"It is unethical and impractical to conduct long-term randomized controlled trials of alcohol consumption," wrote the authors of a paper on alcohol's relation to all-cause mortality in men. In essence, you can't lock 1,000 men into a room and force them to eat and drink exactly as you demand for the course of a lifetime.

Furthermore, there's been a wide range of results from even similarly designed studies on alcohol and mortality due to things like researchers defining the parameters of a drink differently. While some call eight grams of alcohol a drink, others say it's 12, 16, or even as much as 20 grams. And often this research relies on self-reported data: If you've ever had four (or was it six?) high-test IPAs in one sitting, you know exactly why this is an issue.

So yes, if you want to be 100 percent certain that you don't die of an alcohol-caused cancer, your best option is to stop drinking. You may live longer — or it may just feel like an eternity. However, alcohol abstinence in no way guarantees that you won't die from some other sort of non-alcohol caused cancer, or that you won't be hit by a Bud Light truck on your way into the office (a cruel irony for the teetotaler).

The truly bad news here is that life is a dangerous affair. The good news is that this is the home of the brave, and nothing pairs better with risk than a cold beer or a neat bourbon. Just don't overdo it, and mind those beer trucks.